Debating the causes of the Civil War

Posted on November 7, 2012. Filed under: Civil War, Historians, What History is For | Tags: , |

The last post in our consideration of Michael Woods’ article, “What Twenty-First-Century Historians have said about the Causes of Disunion: A Civil War Sesquicentennial Review of the Recent Literature”, in the lastest issue of the Journal of American History (published by the Organization of American Historians), takes us to a conclusion of sorts about Civil War scholarship in this century. (Read it quickly; very soon it will be displaced by election result analysis!)

It seems the story of almost every historical field in the past few decades is one of adding complexity to the existing analysis. For the topic of causes of the Civil War, this means complicating our understanding of northern and southern attitudes toward slavery, and rehabilitating the idea that slavery was, indeed, the cause of the war. Slavery was behind the tariff debates, the westward expansion debates, the states’ rights debates, and the debates over industrializing the economy, immigration, monetary policy, and just about everything else one can think of.

This does not mean that abolition, the morality of slavery, or the rights of black people were always discussed in these debates. Slavery was not always discussed in its own context—that is, in the context of an argument about whether it was morally right or morally wrong to enslave human beings.  Slavery was often discussed as an economic, social, or political concept; a system that influenced other systems. Its human face, the actual condition of enslaved people, would not take center stage on a regular basis until the 1850s, and even on the eve of the war over slavery the situation of slaves was not as popular a topic for many Americans as the situations of white people living with black enslavement.

But that minority of Americans who focused on the  moral wrong of slavery grew to become the majority population during the war, and even after the failure/sabotaging of Reconstruction, it was never acceptable to question whether slavery had been right or wrong; the stance that slavery was a moral good, once a safe stance to take in public, became the last resort of racists who hid behind white sheets and terror societies.

Looking into recent scholarship on the Civil War is rewarding, as it shows that new understandings can come into view even for the most exhaustively studied topics.

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